Wadada Leo Smith: An Exciting Half of the Golden Quartet
I can't help but wonder how potential concert consumers choose whether or not to attend an artistic event. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith presented the latest edition of his Golden Quartet on a recent Thursday evening at the prestigious Merkin Concert Hall of the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center in Manhattan. On the following Saturday, the New York Times' Nate Chinen wrote a complementary review of the event, and a picture of Smith accompanied the article. In short, some stellar coverage and exposure for an unjustly neglected performer. When Smith ventured to Baltimore's secluded An Die Musik on the intervening Friday evening to play a duo with bassist John Lindberg, however, only twenty-five people attended the first set. I expect that fewer still were at the 10:00 show. In any event, those absent from the evening were poorer without the enriching experience.
Smith and Lindberg split the one hour performance into four almost equal segments, and each created a compelling performance, both unified and segmented in nature. Lindberg displayed a remarkable sense of creativity and texture throughout the evening. Indeed, sitting less than eight feet from his position, it was difficult not to be distracted from the duo dialogue with Smith. Lindberg began by plucking the strings in a hushed manner, barely articulating a prelude of the spontaneous composition. He constructed the forcefulness of the line and deftly served the phrase to Smith, who received the idea with welcome and began his portion of the conversation. There were times during the performance when Lindberg not only tapped the instrument with his palms and fingers, but he explored the timbre of the wood by striking the bass in different portions of the body; the sound from the face of the instrument is strikingly different than the percussive effect from under the side arc. The listener was completely unaware that a percussionist was not present, as he continued the beating and tapping.
On one occasion, Lindberg brought out a small stick and placed the same alternatingly over and under the strings just above the bridge. He pulled the stick back and forth to create a percussive grinding effect, and then suddenly stopped and left the stick lodged amongst the four strings. He continued by forcefully plucking the strings above the finger board and, while he did so, the stick shook violently in the air, creating its own means of percussive effects and tension. But the listener must be cautious not to devote all attention to the battering of the bass. Smith stood but a few feet away, eyes closed to focus all attention on his own distinctive vocabulary.
Smith is himself a cultural chameleon, often extending the arc of his already inclusive aural sphere into the world of Indian raga and far Eastern sensibilities. Although there were intimations of such cross-cultural currents, he seemingly chose to remain embedded within his roots as a founding member of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He alternated long and crisply articulated lines with staccato punctuations of sputters, blats and gurgles. The phrases were shaped by gentle crescendos and sudden violent sound colors. Smith's fingers worked both the instrument's three valves and the valve slides, intimating the sliding sounds of a trombone. I sat no more than twelve feet from Smith and there were times, although no amplification was utilized, that the volume was seemingly akin to a sporting arena; the forcefulness of Smith's sound truly grabs the audience.
The duo continued in such a fashion for approximately forty-five minutes. The final composition, although untitled, served as a hushed meditation to contrast the preceding and exhausting demonstration. Smith utilized two different mutes throughout the piece. Each musician trailed off into nothingness, leaving the audience to wonder whether the performance had actually concluded.
I must admit that Smith appeared to be a somewhat imposing figure during the performance. Throughout the evening, his feet were pointed forward and almost perfectly in line with his shoulders. His eyes remained closed for the performance, and opened only for the short break between each of the four compositions. He spoke not at all to the audience, and descended from the stage rather quickly after the final note trickled off into silence above an expectant audience. But when leaving the small second floor room, each member of the audience was greeted by Smith's eagerly outstretched hand.